The Role of Ugliness and the Need to Address the Topic Head On

A couple of weeks back I posted my point of view on the recent film, Beauty and the Beast. Honestly, I didn’t think many would read it too closely, let alone comment on it.

Well, I was wrong.  And I’m thrilled!

What’s even better is the conflicting point of view that I sparked. Certainly not everyone agreed with my argument, and that was fine by me.  The sheer number of views and comments reinforces the opening point I made in that post: the movie and the subject of beauty, which is clearly part of the story, generate a lot of interest.  My question was why?

Many of the commentators on my post explained that the story line around inner beauty touches us all and the fact that the Belle character is even more nuanced elevates the story even more.  I buy that.  But I was more interested in why the subject of beauty in fairly tales still resonates.  Period.  A few years back I wrote a post about the animated movie, Brave, and how I appreciated that fact that she was not regarded as beautiful or ugly, but rather stubborn, athletic, loving, etc.  In other words, beauty didn’t enter the equation.

I concluded that the subject of beauty has a key role.  It isn’t something to ignore, but a topic we should raise and discuss.

And this means we should also encourage the topic of ugliness.  This is the other side of beauty.  Can someone look or be ugly?  I notice that I dissuade my children from describing things or other people as ugly. But in doing so am I am I shutting them down entirely.  Is that right?  Shouldn’t we invite the discourse?  Doesn’t Beauty and the Beast do just that?

Here’s a reason to talk about it.  I recently read a fascinating article by Mindy Weisberger of LiveScience, Beauty and the Beast: Why We are Fascinated By Human-Animal Mates?  As you can tell from the title, the story delves into the role of half-human half-animal characters in fairy tales.  Interestingly the half-animal characters are mostly male.  I won’t summarize the whole article but share one reason.  In the times of fairy tales, young girls, say around 14 years old, would often be betrothed to much older men.  To these girls, older men were obviously bigger, harrier, more muscular, perhaps even animal-like in their eyes. To assuage their fear of their future husbands, stories would often depict the princes as part animal.  And as we all know, everything turns out all right and we live happily ever after.  What an interesting explanation to share with our children!  And you can imagine the profound discussion that this explanation would lead to around women’s rights, equality, strong partnerships with romantic partners, and the list goes.  But without the freedom to pursue the topic of beauty and ugliness, we may never get to broach those issues.

We are innately interested and appreciate beautiful things and beautiful people.  And in an effort to shield girls and boys from placing too much emphasis on beauty, of course we shouldn’t elevate it to the only, or the primary source of conversation.  As an aside, there’s a book that just came out this week by Renee Engeln about our attention on beauty as a form of sickness, aptly named, Beauty Sick, How the Cultural Obsession with beauty and Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.  The analysis shows the ramifications of too much thought around beauty.  Obviously I don’t endorse that.  But I also believe that we shouldn’t ignore the subject all together or even downplay it.  Let’s embrace beauty, the uniqueness of it, and the bad and the good that come with it.

The Election, Ugliness and the Potential for Beauty that is Before Us

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Last week I wrote about the ironic, beautiful power of ugliness. This week I believe it that much more.

Like so many of us, I had no possible idea how this week would actually turn out.  I’ve seen so many of us in shock, so many of us horrified and so many of us saddened.  I saw many of my friends and co-workers absent Wednesday.  They were literally immobilized.

But, I’m seeing something beautiful too.  I’m seeing my older son irate, passionate and communicative about our leadership.  I’m seeing my community look deeply within themselves to ask “why?”  I’m seeing people realizing that their daughters’ confidence, the amazing diversity of our country, and are ability to show love for others, should NOT be taken for granted.

Of course I’m scared.  Of course, I’m in shock and sickened.  I was so excited to be able to demonstrate to my daughter how powerful we, women, are and can be.

But, I must see this election as a wake up call.  I must react.  This is a lesson for us.  We have to care of our country — which includes EVERYONE.  We can’t assume everyone is fine or agrees with our values.  If we violently disagree with people, we can’t brush them off.  We have to understand them, and work hard to connect.

The morning after the election, I sent this short message to my team:

No question this was a doozy.  But here’s how I’m looking at this:

We can’t look down on society, we just have to set the example instead.  We need to be super encouraging to our daughters/young girls in our lives, extra generous, and loving to everyone from EVERYWHERE.

Lots of love for you all, A

Let’s use this as an opportunity to open our eyes to our OWN behavior.  Of course we have to express ourselves.  Maybe I’m too much a product of being in a engineering company, but I truly believe that it’s way more important what we DO than what we SAY.   When you’ve finished mourning, make extra effort to be wonderful, open-minded, socially active people.  When we demonstrate generous behavior, others will mirror us.

We had an ugly week.  But that ugliness just may have given us the impetus to be and act more beautiful than ever before.

The Sheer Beauty of Ugliness — and I am not talking about #DonaldTrump or US #PresidentialElection

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Last week’s post, Can Images of War & Destruction Be Beautiful?, raised a number of interesting responses.  There’s no question war is ugly, but I wanted to know if beauty be found in all that ugliness.

Writing the post and the feedback I received on it reminded me of one of my posts from a few years back.   In it I asked whether ugliness could actually be a form of beauty.  What I wrote then still resonates with me today — actually especially today — when we see so much ugliness around us.  The election, in particular, has led to some very ugly statements, acts and responses.  Do I condone them?  No, but maybe they do offer us something positive in a way.

My post, All Hail Uglinessshows how.  Here’s what I wrote:

While I celebrate beauty, I also revel in ugliness.  Why?  Because ugliness isn’t a negation of beauty but another side of it.

Easy does it on the hallucinogens, you’re thinking. Let me explain.

I’m not here to declare what is beautiful or ugly. So much of these definitions are culturally and personally determined. Nevertheless, we all know beauty and ugliness when we see it, however we define it.

Yet, as Sara Halprin tells us in “Look at My Ugly Face!,” ugliness can be powerful.  Ugliness isn’t a fixed state but a creative and transformative process that “offers riches to be mined.”  While she points to various explanations of the role of ugliness, my favorite is this one: sourcing her thinking from ancient myths and current research as a psychologist, she says that being stripped of beauty is akin to being stripped of other societal expectations. Being ugly frees us!  Many times people who have been maimed or sick, and therefore appear ugly to themselves, actually look at the world and their abilities in different ways.  Being ugly opens up new doors and allows them to express new sides of themselves.

Ultimately, by being the other side of beauty, “ugliness” contains within itself the “spirit of beauty” she writes. Why? Because things of beauty force us to compare ourselves and our world to them. A simple example: when someone who lives in a worn down, beat up town full of dilapidated building sees a photograph of a town full of greenery, interesting architecture and culture, she can’t help but compare her town to this one. She will want something better, and hopefully find ways to satisfy her desire. Ultimately they can inspire, enlighten and push us to ask ourselves questions, like “is this all there is?” or “could things be better?” Ugliness, as I pointed out above, also inspires us to access or express different sides of ourselves and, ultimately, pushes us forward.

Back to today’s election season, we’ve certainly seen some ugly things. And they downright disgust and scare me. But they do motivate me, offer me a new perspective and in a way, inspire me. These ugly words forced me to discuss issues around entitlement, misogyny and prejudice with my friends and family. They compelled meet to write about them in this blog. They drew my attention towards problems I am fortunate enough not to experience, like sexual harassment. And they made me care that much more about who governs us. While ugliness may not uplift me, it can teach me something, offer a new perspective, and sometimes even push me to act. So, yes, ugliness can be beautiful.

But in the end, I don’t think we should strive for ugliness.  In the words of Alec Baldwin, as he stepped out of his Donald Trump character in yesterday’s SNL, “I hate yelling at you all the time… don’t you feel gross because of this?”  Let’s aim for beauty, love and peace.

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The Stark Contrast Makes It the Most Chilling & Appropriate

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I couldn’t NOT click on the article.  It was called “Chilling Beauty” and it shared the personal story of a visit to the beautiful, picturesque village of Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin.  In this town, in the beautiful villa shown above, the Nazi’s met to conceive of the Final Solution.

The reason for the visit was an interfaith conference. But what is interesting to me wasn’t the content of the conference or the author’s perspectives on the trip, but, rather, the title of the piece and the actual setting on the event.

Often we think it’s ironic when images of beauty and horror coincide.  Thats makes perfect sense.  When we conjure up horrific historical events, like the Final Solution, terrible, ugly images of death camps, firing squads, and gas chambers come to mind.  We don’t imagine bucolic, green and flowery scenes.  It’s more than ironic, it’s disgusting and unjust.

And yet, the contrast between these beautiful landscapes and the horrors that they sparked is actually appropriate in a way.  The other side of beauty is ugliness.  Seeing the beautiful landscapes of Wannsee don’t deflect from the horrors but actually reinforce them.  When we see how beautiful the world CAN and SHOULD be, and then realize how ugly it actually has become in some instances, the ugliness feels that much more jarring.

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List reflects this dichotomy well.  While the film does an excellent job portraying the horrors of Holocaust, the film is still a masterpiece.  It’s beautifully written, acted and shot.  Perhaps this is why the film still captures our attention to this day.

Whether we remember terrible acts in history with images of horror or beauty, the lesson is the same.

Never again.